CrISIS 8.

A certain amount seems to be agreed about the history of Islamic fundamentalist ideology: Saudi Arabia sought to fend off criticism of the monarchy by pouring money into the proselytizing of Wahhabism throughout the Muslim world; this intellectual milieu opened the road from one form of commitment to other, more extreme, forms of commitment; both al Qaeda and Hamas benefitted from this in the past in the sense that there existed a broad tolerance for Islamist terrorism.  However, now ISIS has emerged as the champion of conservative Sunni Islam.  The “end-of-days” thread in the thought of ISIS has alienated many (perhaps most) Muslims.  That still leaves people (the policy-makers, the politicians who front for them, and the scholars and intelligence officers who advise them) with dilemmas.

For one thing, ISIS might best be thought of as a coalition, rather than a coherent movement.  On the one hand, it is essentially an Iraqi Sunni movement.  Yes, it flourished in a Syria torn apart by civil war, but it has at its core Iraqi Sunnis who had participated in the insurgency that followed the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, then fled to Syria.  On the other hand, it is an international “brand” that inspires malcontents elsewhere to act against both “Unbelievers” and “Misbelievers.”  Will any one strategy succeed against ISIS or is it just an umbrella term for several separate wars?

For another thing, will mowing the lawn on a regular basis (i.e. drone strikes on Islamist leaders) accomplish anything?[1]  The answer probably depends on whether one is attacking a tightly circumscribed transnational terrorist network (like Al Qaeda) or a broadly-based insurgency (like the Taliban).  Killing the leadership of a network will disorganize it and disrupt its communications.  Killing the leader of a local insurgency may just lead to the movement coughing up another leader, one possibly more radical than his predecessor.   The U.S. has faced this dilemma since 9/11.  Starkly: hunt Osama bin Laden or invade Iraq?

For a third thing, “is the main threat the radicalization of Islam or the Islamization of radicalism?”[2]  That is, do some elements (individuals or groups) of Muslim communities move toward a conflict-oriented fundamentalism?  If that’s the case, then the solution may be more effective policing to discern people headed down a pathway to violence.  Alternatively, do some madmen just seek a “cause” with which to identify, and ISIS is the flavor of the month?  If that is the case, then perhaps the defeat of ISIS will reduce the appeal of “jihad.”  (NB: Probably both.  So, where are the physical and psychological spaces where the two groups meet?)

The Wall Street Journal’s Yaroslav Trofimov reports that about a quarter of the ISIS recruits in Europe are actually converts from some other faith or from no faith, while many of the Muslims come from families that were non-observant.  One way to read this is that secularization has left some people intellectually and emotionally adrift.  Another way to read it is that troubled people search for some rock to cling to so they aren’t washed away in their inner storms.  The two are not incompatible.  Moreover, Trofimov is understandably pre-occupied by the danger of attacks in the West.  What about the many more dissidents in the countries of the Muslim world?

Can ISIS be defeated?  In one sense, yes, obviously. Bomb them back to the Stone Age.  But can it “die”?  Are Bozo Haram and Bangladeshi terrorists and “lone wolves” in California and Florida actually in touch with the Islamic State in any meaningful way?  Or are they just inspired by the example?  If ISIS is defeated in Syraqia, will it be discredited or will people continue to evoke it as an ideal?  There are no easy answers to any of these questions.

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “U.S. Killings of Militant Leaders Deliver Mixed Results,” WSJ, 27 May 2016.

[2] Yaroslav Trofimov, “For Some New Militants, Islam is a Flag of Convenience,” WSJ, 17 June 2016.

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Annals of Counter Terrorism 1.

Emanuel L. Lutchman lived in Rochester, New York.[1] He was born about 1990. His mother died soon afterward and he was raised by his grand-mother in Florida. He was diagnosed with mental problems early on. When he was 13 he returned to Rochester to live with his mother’s side of the family. He never graduated from high school. By 2006, at the latest, he was having “contact” with the police. In part, this stemmed from his unsteady mental health. In part, this stemmed from crimes. He did a five year bit for robbery. He became a Muslim while in prison. Prison doctors also loaded him up on meds for his mental problems. At some point he got married and the couple had a son, but Lutchman found the responsibilities of marriage and fatherhood a burden. He had a felony conviction, but no high school diploma. Who would hire him? After he got out of prison, he began to follow radical Islamist web-sites and complained on Facebook about the injustices of “the system.” He soon came to the attention of the authorities, who sprang into action. His grandmother said that he was visited by FBI agents in early Fall 2015. They asked him to work as an informant. He declined.[2]

Then he contacted a member of the Islamic State abroad. The government became aware of this and sicked on him several informants. The informants soon won Lutchman’s confidence. He told them of his desire to stage an attack in the near future. The informants told Lutchman that they would help him. His first thought was to imitate the Tsarnaev brothers by building a pressure-cooker bomb. However, he didn’t have enough money to buy a pressure cooker.[3] He thought about a stabbing attack in a restaurant on New Year’s Eve. His wife had a knife and he could get a ski-mask for $5. So, this was more in his price-range.

When Lutchman pledged his allegiance to ISIS, the internet contact urged him to kill many “kuffar” (Unbelievers). Lutchman then made an audio recording of himself pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed leader of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. He sent the recording to one of the informants. The informant gave the recording to his government superiors. Soon afterward, the superiors told the informant to pull out of the operation. This left Lutchman down-cast. He texted the informant that he “was thinking about stopping the operation.” The other informant quickly bolstered Lutchman’s resolve. He also took him to a Rochester Walmart. They scored ski masks, knives, a machete, and some other stuff. The bill came to $40. Lutchman didn’t have any money, so the informer paid the bill. The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force then arrested Lutchman the next day.

William J. Hochul, Jr., the United States Attorney in Buffalo declared that “this New Year’s Eve prosecution underscores the threat of ISIL even in upstate New York, but demonstrates our determination to immediately stop anyone who would cause harm in its name.”

The ISIS member with whom Lutchman was in contact has not been publicly identified.

[1] Benjamin Mueller, “Rochester Man Charged With Planning a Machete Attack on Behalf of ISIS,” NYT, 1 January 2016.

[2] See: https://www.google.com/search?q=Walmart+pressure+cookers+price&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8#q=Walmart+pressure+cookers+price&tbm=shop

[3] They range in price between $20 and $120. See: https://www.google.com/search?q=Walmart+pressure+cookers+price&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8#q=Walmart+pressure+cookers+price&tbm=shop

Terrorism 1.

How long will the current war against radical Islamism continue? Can we win? How will we know when/if we have won? These questions don’t get much discussion, so preoccupied are we with each surprising outbreak of insurgency and atrocity. Probably, government officials in democracies are not eager to tell the public that this could go on for a lot longer than the next election cycle. Back in 2009, two books offered counsel that still deserves attention.[1]

David Kilcullen saw a core struggle between radical Islam, on the one hand, and the Unbelievers in the West and Incorrect Believers in many Muslim countries, on the other hand. Swirling around both parties to the core struggle were many local movements that associate themselves in name with radical Islam (Al Qaeda then, ISIS now, something else in the future). The strength and the staying power of the local insurgencies vary greatly. Kilcullen thought that the Western countries had a pretty good sense of how to wage the core struggle against radical Islam, even if they botched the execution from time to time. Where they came up short is in managing the peripheral small wars. Indeed, having the local insurgencies pop-up seemingly out of nowhere is one of the things disturbing the public in the West. More recently, the “lone wolf” attacks in Britain, Canada, France, and the United States add to this unease.

According to Michael Burleigh, history tells us that we can and–almost certainly will—win. Terrorism has come and gone in waves: in the 19th Century, they were Irish Fenians, Russian revolutionaries, and European anarchists; in the later 20th Century, they were malcontent leftists in advanced countries (Weathermen, Red Brigades, Red Army Faction, IRA, ETA) and Third World rebels (PLO, South Africa); today they are radical Islamists (Chechens, Al Qaeda, ISIS). Wherever they go, the terrorists have left a trail of dead, maimed, and traumatized victims. In most cases, however, they had little in the way of concrete political achievements to show for their work.

How to defeat these threats? Focusing on the peripheral wars and insurgencies, Kilcullen recommends policies that protect local communities in remote areas from becoming penetrated by radical movements. This, rather than heavy hammer blows from the military, is most likely to stop an insurgency in its tracks. Problems abound with this solution. A lot of the world’s people live in small communities remote from central government authority. Who can tell where the next danger will arise? Is every Middlesex village and farm to be garrisoned “just in case”? Then, most armies train for conventional war against foreign states or for repression of dissent in unjust societies, not for policing or community protection.

Here, Michael Burleigh has some equally useful suggestions. Focusing on the core struggle, Burleigh argues that experience shows that winning the ideological debate through public diplomacy; promoting economic development to drain the swamp of poverty that contributes to radicalization; and developing intelligence capabilities before relying on brute force offers the best path forward. Burleigh’s strategy provides the framework for Kilcullen’s tactics. However, long debates in many languages on social media, nudging countries toward social justice and economic modernization, nurturing good governance in countries suspicious of Western meddling, and building language skills and cultural competence in intelligence agencies is going to take time. We’re in for a long war. People need to know this harsh truth.

[1] David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); Michael Burleigh, Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism (New York: HarperCollins, 2009). .

What We Learned From the Report of the 911 Commission X

In the mid- to late-Eighties, Khadr Abu Hoshar, a Palestinian terrorist resident in Jordan, was recruiting young men who had been through the Afghan training camps. In 1996 Abu Hoshar was imprisoned for a time by the Jordanians. By 1998 he had been released and was back to his old tricks. During 1998 he and a group of 15 fellow terrorists worked up an ambitious plan for attacks. During 1999 he got in contact with some Islamic terrorist jihadis in Afghanistan who had some sort of ties to OBL. They were providing technical advice and training to Abu Hoshar’s group. (pp. 252-253.)

Abu Hoshar’s security practices had not improved during his stretch in a Jordanian prison, however, because the Jordanian intelligence service spiked his phone and kept his whole group under observation. On 30 November 1999 the Jordanians intercepted a conversation between Abu Hoshar and Abu Zubaydah, the Afghan with connections to OBL, which seemed to herald an imminent attack. They rolled up all but one of the group, turned the screws on the prisoners until they got a bunch of intelligence in short order, and told the Americans what was up. (pp. 252-253.)

The CIA situated this report in a larger context during the first few days of December 1999 by reporting the possibility of a planned series of attacks by OBL at the “millennium,” some of which might involve weapons of mass destruction. (pp. 253-254.) Various efforts were made to hinder any such attacks by various means: by diplomacy (the Taliban were threatened, the Paks were cozened); by disruption in cooperation with friendly intelligence services; by loosening the leash on CIA operations. (pp. 254-255.) In December 1999 the leader of the Northern Alliance offered to plaster al Qaeda’s training camp at Derunta with rockets. Again, the CIA thought that this would violate a ban on assassinations, so they waved him off. (p. 270-271.)

Canada was awash in terrorists and aspiring terrorists in the late Nineties. Ahmed Ressam, a Moroccan petty criminal who had managed to find refuge in Canada in 1994, was recruited in 1998 by another jihadi then resident in Canada. Ressam spent part of 1998 training an Afghanistan terrorist camp. Here he joined a group of other Algerian jihadis who had been recruited for anti-American terrorist action. Back in Canada in the first half of 1999, Ressam received assistance from three other Algerians who were hiding out in Canada from French authorities, who wanted to talk to them about some stuff that had happened in France. By December 1999 he was in Vancouver, BC, preparing to enter the United States to attack LAX. (p. 255.)

On 14 December 1999 Ressam behaved oddly when attempting to enter the United States at Port Angeles, Washington, and was arrested. (p. 257.) The Ressam arrest coming on top of the report of the Jordanian plot caused great alarm in Washington. The FBI started tapping numerous telephones under FISA warrants. Richard Clarke’s office warned that “Foreign terrorist sleeper cells are present in the US and attacks in the US are likely.” Clarke also asked Berger rhetorically “Is there a threat to civilian aircraft?” (pp. 258-259.) In late December 1999 the US received a report from a foreign intelligence service that OBL planned to bomb several transatlantic flights. (p. 259.)

The GWOT If Israel was in Charge.

What if Israel ran the Global War on Terror (GWOT)?

On the wall of his office Meir Dagan had an old black-and-white photograph of his grandfather about to be shot by a German in Russia during the Second World War.  Must be some German soldier’s snap-shot, something he could keep as a trophy or send home to his girlfriend.  I don’t know where Dagan got it.  Probably did a lot of looking through the picture collection at Yad Vashem.  This may not be psychologically healthy.  Perhaps he should consider grief counseling.  On the other hand, Dagan was the head of the Israeli foreign intelligence service, the Mossad.  He can look at it anytime he wants during the day while he tries to figure out how to deal with Israel’s enemies.

One of the units under Dagan’s command is called “Kidon.”  That’s the Hebrew word for bayonet.  (Actually, it probably means “dagger” or “six inches of honed bronze” because Hebrew is a language from the many days ago before Bayonne even existed.)  You go to Barnes and Noble, you’ll find a bunch of books about American snipers with 500 “kills” or sumshit like that.  Kind of FPSy if you ask me.  I don’t think I’ve run across books about sticking a blade in somebody, feeling it grate on a rib, inhaling the coppery smell of blood, hearing the guy gasping for breath like it’s sex.  Nothing FPS about that.  Kidon typifies Israel’s response to terrorism.

After the 1972 Munich Olympics, Kidon launched “Operation Wrath of God.”  (See: “Munich.”)  The Israelis killed eleven PLO terrorists believed to have been involved in the attack.  It took seven years.  Apparently, they’re tenacious and patient.

At least once, in Lillehamer, Norway, they killed a complete innocent.  In front of his pregnant wife.  Apparently, they don’t get thrown off-track by remorse over errors.

After Hamas rose to power in the Gaza Strip in 1993, it sent many suicide bombers into Israel.  The Israelis didn’t take this lying down.  In 1996 they palmed off a “burner” filled with explosives on Yahya Ayyash, the really talented chief bomb maker for Hamas; in 1997 they tried to kill Khaled Meshal, a Hamas leader, by injecting poison into his ear; in 2004 they killed the founder of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, with an Apache gunship; in 2008 they put a bomb in the headrest of a Hamas leader’s car in Damascus.  In January 2010 they suffocated the chief contact between Hamas and Iran in his luxury hotel room in Dubai.  Apparently, they focus on the enemy leadership.

When Hamas took full control of Gaza in 2007, it fired thousands of rockets into Israel.  Israel responded by blockading Gaza: it will not allow in cement, steel, cars, computers, and lots of ordinary food; its navy will not let fishing boats proceed more than three miles from shore; it will not allow any Palestinians out of Gaza.  From December 2008 to January 2009 Israeli forces bombarded the Gaza Strip.  Anything big (police stations, factories, government buildings, schools, hospitals) got blown up; 1,300 people got killed; tens of thousands got “dishoused”—as the RAF used to describe the result of the area bombing of German cities.  Apparently, they don’t care much about making a bad impression on world opinion.

At the same time, Israeli leaders have begun to talk about doing a deal with Syria for the return of the Golan Heights.  Syria is the chief supporter of Hamas.  Probably, the price of the Golan for Syria would include helping eliminate the ability of Hamas to engage in attacks on Israel—before the Syrians get back the Golan. (See: Michael Collins.)  Apparently, they adapt to changing circumstances and will talk to their enemies.

So, tenacity, patience, focus, a thick hide to criticism, and adaptability are keys traits.  The enemy hasn’t gone away, but neither have the Israelis.  They live with a long struggle.